In June 2021, Manchester-based Hannah Donelon contacted the Festival, to see if we had room for a project idea of hers.
Instead, Hannah and her theatre company –Hawkseed Theatre– joined our network of Irish artists finding friendship and kinship; presented at the 2021 Cultural Connectedness Network Day, sang at our launch and will now present Hawkseed’s first play at #LIF2022 as part of an English tour. Here, Hannah talks about what drives her to access her Irishness; platform Irish work and to make visible that which is often hidden in plain sight.
The Trip to Holyhead: Memories of an Irish Childhood
There’s a joke in my family which, I’m afraid, is sadly at the expense of my poor, loving Dad. Over the years, as you can imagine, this joke has been milked, stretched, exaggerated, deconstructed, reconstructed, but somehow it still very much clings to a truth; to a reality. And most importantly: it still very much makes us all laugh.
Let me paint the scene for you. It’s 2am and my Mum is rousing her sleepy, groggy children from their delicious slumber. But these children have hardly slept! These children have been far too excited for what tomorrow holds…
They’ve been waiting 351 days for this. They’ve tried and tried to sleep, but the night before the ferry always feels different, doesn’t it? There’s an excitement that feels pregnant, palpable, and unavoidable; it’s almost like the house itself knows something strange and unusual is stirring and so tries to hold us all from spontaneously combusting into flame. The lights are on in the hallway; Mum’s packing. The radio’s playing on the landing; Dad’s having his bath. This is an ‘August Christmas Eve’ and the four children giggle and wiggle as they pull the covers over their heads, in an attempt to make tomorrow come as quickly as possible.
Well it does. It’s 2am and we’re being torn from our sleep. We’ve hardly slept and the quick frenetic energy of yesterday feels impossible to resuscitate. There are groans and sighs, closed eyes, stroppiness and shoves. It’s cold. There’s Mum’s gentle but firm ‘’you can sleep in the car’’ countering Dad’s (reader-friendly) streams of: ‘’we’re going to miss the ferry’’; ‘’will ya come on will ya?’’; ‘’We’re going to miss it altogether!’’; ‘’The traffic will be dynamite!’’…
We arrive at Holyhead. Silence.
‘’Have we missed the boat?’’ Silence.
‘’Where is everyone!?’’
Silence again as we look out at the desolate, dark, lonely port.
‘’No, we’re just a little early that’s all’’.
All four children look at each other, groan, slump back, and collectively groan: ‘’DaAaAad!!’’
We shuffle and twist to try to get back into our crooked sleep, elbows poking this way and that. Before long our frustration locks in on each other: ‘’you’re on my side’’; ‘’you’re doing that on purpose’’; ‘’Mum tell him…!!’’
Eventually, Mum’s diplomatic ‘’a little early’’ takes on a more tangible definition: we learn that this ‘’little early’’ means approximately 5 hours early. Or, as the joke might have it, 15 hours early. Dad releases the handbrake and we begin driving onto the boat. It isn’t long before we’re onto the next family fiasco: the finding of a ‘’good seat’’!
Each year, our ridiculous earliness seemed to grow and grow. 2003’s iteration saw my brother, Michael, sleepily and innocently lifting the first spoonful of cornflakes to his mouth when, suddenly, in jumps Dad yanking the bowl out from beneath him to speed things along. Michael had to eat in transit to the kitchen sink, chugging down the spoonfuls he could connect. It was probably 1am with the boat setting sail at 8pm… Or so the joke would go…
And yet, to my surprise, it feels like this experience exists in some form or other in many Irish households across the North West; the trials and tribulations of ‘The Trip to Holyhead’.
Whilst researching and developing A Very Odd Birthday Party, over the past 18 months, this is something that never fails to amaze me and certainly never fails to comfort me. This shared experience of what it is to be Irish in England.
For the diaspora babies, it’s safe to say it can be somewhat of an identity crisis: it’s like you’re Irish in England and you’re English in Ireland. But, no matter what generation of Irish you are, your heritage is full of humour, pain, confusion, compassion, jealousy, yearning. The soil is fertile. And the soil is complex.
After the boat
Then why, I wonder, in artistic representation of the Irish emigration narrative -for instance in theatre or traditional ballads- does the story largely seem to wrap up, to conclude after leaving those Irish hills? After setting sail on the boat?
When I was being interviewed about the play recently, I found myself choking-up a little reflecting on how the landscape of cities like Liverpool and Manchester wouldn’t be what they are today without Irish hands. When I look at a few buildings around Manchester, I’ll always say to whoever I’m with: “my Dad helped build that”. But, I guess by landscape I don’t just mean geographical. I mean social, economic, artistic landscapes, too.
It’s interesting reflecting on this year’s theme of ‘hunger’ because, as I’m sure you can gauge, for years now I have felt incredibly hungry to express the Irish emigrant experience here in the North West. I feel an incredible hunger to share it with you all. To celebrate and champion all the humour and liveliness as well as all the trauma and longing. To express our portion of the story.
This type of hunger is evident in the play itself. Eveline, the play’s main character, is constantly trying to satisfy a seemingly impossible hunger. She wants to fully connect with her Irish roots; to fully assimilate and understand her parents’ experience. Her father, Michael, then explores his own hunger for life back at home, a life he left behind, a life he could have had if only things were different.
When I think back to those restless exciting nights before the drive to Holyhead, I think of us all. All hungry to connect with Ireland; to reconnect with Home. My brother Michael might have been hungry after only a few mouthfuls of his cornflakes but, I guess the point is, we never missed the ferry Home.
Hannah Donelon’s A Very Odd Birthday Party -a play full of comedy, suffering, and hope for the future- will be performed at Liverpool Royal Court Studio on 27 October 2022 as part of Hawkseed Theatre’s tour of England. Directed by Anna Berentzen, it features musical supervision from award-winning fiddle player Emma Sweeney. Follow Hawkseed on Twitter @hawkseed and Instagram @hawkseedtheatre and email [email protected] to join their mailing list.
The play is delivered in partnership with The Met and Liverpool Irish Festival and is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and funding from the Consulate General of Ireland, Manchester. A Very Odd Birthday Party was initially developed thanks to funding and support from The Production Exchange.
Image credit: Hannah and her three brothers on the ferry to Ireland, August 1995.